David Torn Talks Tones

July 16, 2015

No one could accuse David Torn of grinding out guitar records lately, but 30 years ago it was a different story. Beginning in 1985 with Best Laid Plans, Torn ripped through six groundbreaking, guitar-heavy releases in one decade. Since 1996’s What Means Solid Traveller, however, the master of ambient looping and fuzz-drenched, Eastern-inflected soloing has been flying under the guitar-hero radar.

It is not that the sonic pioneer has been idle. In the interim, he has lent his distinctive guitar work to a Who’s Who of creative musicians, including David Bowie, k.d. lang, John Legend, Tori Amos, David Sylvian, and Meshell Ndegeocello, as well as producing records for Jeff Beck and Tim Berne. Torn sandwiched those gigs in between soundtrack work on films like Friday Night Lights, The Big Lebowski, Traffic, and Three Kings, as well as his Grammywinning score for The Order.

There have been some collaborative stealth releases over the years with Splattercell and Prezens, but Torn the guitar hero is finally back with Only Sky [ECM], and it is everything fans of the whammy (bar and pedal)-wielding wizard could hope for: a completely solo effort that showcases the innovative loops and go-for-broke soloing that place him on guitar Olympus. Read on, as the wizard reveals some of his secrets.

Why do a solo record this time?

It started when I got the Avid Pro Tools + Eleven Rack. I was doing early morning sessions in my studio just improvising songs. I would find two chords or a three-note melody, do the improv, and record it straight down. If I didn’t like it, I might do another one. I had a bunch of pieces for my TED Talk—one, called “Only Sky,” became the title song on the new record. But, when I got there, I changed my mind; I just went out and improvised. That made me think I should keep improvising—there’s something satisfying about it. I decided it didn’t always have to be a song format. For this record, some pieces are a bit song-like and the rest are totally improvised.

Was editing or overdubbing involved?

I edited some of the pieces. If I had to go pee, I just let the loops run [laughs]. I’d run to the bathroom and then come back and start where I left off. After 35 minutes of playing, I would get offstage, but leave the loops going. There were some processors running that produced sounds on their own. I’d start a really good piece, and then I’d do something dumb like fall down. I’d try to find a natural place to begin again, and then edit it together. In the mix, I would edit all the crap out. The music was recorded live in stereo, so there was not a lot of other fixing that could be done.

Where did you record?

Some of it was at EMPAC [Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in Troy, New York] at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute. It’s a 1,500-seat theater with 50-foot ceilings. The room is set up with microphone cabling and remotely movable mics. I used some mics that were close to the cabinets, another two mics far out to the sides, two pairs of stereo mics in front of the stage about 15 or 20 feet into the audience, and two big room mics hanging from the balcony that were super wide. Some other pieces were recorded at home, and the challenge of the mix was to blend them with the ones recorded at EMPAC.

Did you try to reproduce the EMPAC room?

I just used my ear to get close to it. It was about capturing the coloration of the room, which was quite a bit warmer than my original home recordings. EMPAC is like playing into a beautiful cushion that doesn’t dull things.

What did you use in your studio to reproduce it?

I have a couple of custom reverb patches I did in Native Instruments Reaktor. I might have used some digital EQ to empty out the midrange in certain places to make sure the overall sound was warmly reverberant.

Do you use reverb in your rig as well, or is that all delay?

I have a Lexicon PCM80. I programmed what I believe was the first commercially available version of what people now call “Shimmer.” I started with the first PCM70. I bring my own reverb with me, but there are certain rooms that enhance every sound.

How did you get the live glitching guitar effects on the record?

All the glitching, stuttering stuff is done with the original Hexe reVolver pedal.

Are you controlling the pitch with an expression pedal?

I was following the reVolver with a Digi- Tech DT Whammy Pedal. It let me shift the pitch of those short reVolver loops, but not the length. I shifted them in a musical way while I was playing and transposed in my head as I went. If you hear a loop length being altered and there’s a lot of stuttering within the loop, it could be the Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro. I use it to build new rhythmic figures by using its insert and multiply functions. The crazy part is that the reVolver feeds into the EDP, and I make it worse because everything in my rack can be sent to everything else [Laughs].

In some places it sounds like you are using the self-oscillating feature of your signature Trombetta Tornita! fuzz.

It is trial and error; sometimes you don’t get it right and you have to deal with it. I set it up so I have an idea of the pitch range. To play Theremin-like melodies, I need to know where my top and bottom notes are. There is also a PCM 42 sound where I am changing the pitch, the length of the loop, and also have a square wave LFO going. I’ll change the pitch and length with my foot, and change the speed of the LFO with my hand until I like it. Sometimes I’ll change the depth of the LFO at the same time—there are many planned accidents and manipulations thereof.

How did you sonically separate the loops from the improvisations over them?

I had a Fryette Sig:X head in the middle as my dry amp, which isn’t actually totally dry. I was using the THD Hot Plate Attenuator, which would send the signal to my rack mixer for my rack effects, and then to a Fryette Two/Fifty/Two stereo power amp that fed a Fryette Deliverance cab on one side of the stage. On the opposite side I had a Bogner Goldfinger 2x12. In the middle was a Bob Burt 2x12 custom pine, V-front cabinet, with two old Celestion Blues in it.

Which guitars did you use?

I used the pink Ronin Mirari for all the EMPAC material. At home, I used my D’Pergo Strat-style on one track, my Koll Tornado on one track, and I’m pretty sure I used the Teuffel Niwa also.

Is that just amp overdrive on “I Could Almost See the Room?”

I was turning an Empress Effects Compressor on and off. I also used the Chase Bliss Audio Warped Vinyl. It’s a vibrato pedal with an analog signal and a digital controller attached to the back. You can control it with LFOs or the envelope of your attack. I was pushing the amp with it, even when I wasn’t using any pitch changing. Anything that sounds like a chorus on the guitar would be that. I used a Caroline Guitar Company Kilobyte delay on the dry amp. The pedal has a momentary switch on it to make it go into wild self-oscillation.

Is that where the octave sound on that tune comes from?

No, that’s my Lexicon, unless it’s on the direct guitar sound, and then it’s a Whammy pedal. The reverbs have something more complicated than just an octave up. It’s actually a series of stereo delay lines with octaves being modulated at different speeds, in different amounts on each side mixed into a very huge reverb.

There’s a great distortion sound on “Reaching Sparely, Barely Fraught.”

It was probably the Trombetta Mini-Bone. That track was actually recorded with the Kemper Profiler in my studio.

Are you using an auto filter on “Only Sky?”

There’s a kind of envelope-driven filter from the Kemper that’s only on the reverb. The Kemper has all these envelope driven effects. There’s a certain set of sonic compromises I accept from digital modeling, so I can play at the volume I want at four in the morning. The main compromise is a lack of animation and multi-dimensionality in the sound and feel. Kemper is the best modeler I’ve had, yet I’m always looking for things to make it feel more random, so I can respond to it.

What’s next?

 I did a session that could become a groovy pop record. It’s a Celtic-sounding woman singer, with very dark lyrics, very simple drum programming, and a few simple, yet charming, synth patches. I fill in everything else. They seemed to like the idea of black metal guitar. I used my new Basic Audio Fuzz Mutant pedal and the Fryette Power Station attenuator with my Fryette Deliverance amp. It sounded so damn good I couldn’t even tell if I was playing well or not!

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